FOR YEARS, THE HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS have viewed the Starbucks as, at best, a convenient plot point. Sean Penn played a mentally challenged Starbucks barista in “I Am Sam”; Dr. Evil’s headquarters in “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” was a Starbucks office atop the Seattle Space Needle.

But last week, Lionsgate offered Starbucks an unexpected new role: gross point player. The coffee giant will promote the spelling bee drama “Akeela and the Bee,” which hits theaters in April, on coffee cups and cup-holders, on kiosks and spinner racks, and on the company’s inhouse wireless network. In return, Starbucks will get an undisclosed percentage of the first-dollar gross.

Even at a time when studios are aggressively asking fast-food chains and soft drink companies to share in their marketing costs, the Stabucks deal is a surprising shift. When Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts do a promotional deal with a studio, they provide licensing dollars and free TV time. Starbucks is merely granting Lionsgate promotional support in its thousands of stores. And in exchange, it’s receiving an equity position akin to what it would receive if it were one of the film’s original co-financiers.

Ironically, news of the deal came one day before the Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times published simultaneous reports that studios have decided, virtually overnight, to hold the line on first-dollar players – news that came as a surprise to a number of first-dollar players.

STARBUCKS’ TRANSFORMATION from a specialty coffee chain to a global brand name with tentacles in the entertainment world has occurred with lightning speed. There was no way to know when the first Starbucks outlets opened in Beverly Hills and Hollywood in 1991 that people would one day line up to pay $5 for a decaf venti pumpkin soy latte with extra foam.

But by the end of the 1990s, the company was opening two outlets a day around the world, selling CDs and generating nearly $2 billion a year in sales.

That explosive growth gave rise to a powerful wave of anti-Starbuck sentiment — everything from Web sites like ihatestarbucks.com to the anti-globalization foes who’ve repeatedly vandalized Seattle-area Starbucks stores.

Starbucks has carefully countered that negative sentiment by expanding its brand into areas like the music biz, by improving relations with its employees and by bathing the “Starbucks experience” in a kind of new age goal.

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz subscribes to a retail model using “touch points” to foster an emotional bond with consumers. Starbucks is a “high touch” business, which means that the process of ordering coffee is engineered to maximize the contact that customers have with the Starbucks brand — everything from multiple serving stations to the logos on the coffee cups, which are imprinted with little aphorisms from books like “The Purpose Driven Life.”

As Naomi Klein put it in her anti-branding book “No Logo,” the coffee chain has taken a “generic product — a cup of coffee — and branded it so completely that it becomes a spiritual/designer object.”

The arrangement to promote “Akeela,” an upflifting movie about an African-American spelling prodigy, fits this model perfectly. As Starbucks’ first foray into movie promotions, it may serve as a template for the future of in-store marketing. But it’s hard to imagine a similar deal for, say, “MI:3″ or “Superman.” And it’s harder still to imagine the studios behind those films agreeing to give away a piece of the gross.

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MEDIA PUNDITS who’ve been anticipitating a sharp decline in studio spending on newspaper ads may have been surprised to open the New York Times and L.A. Times on Monday. Both papers featured page after page of full-page ads for Universal movies, including five each for “Munich.”

In the L.A. Times, the studio pulled off the equivalent of a TV roadblock. Every full-page ad was for a Universal release.

The “Munich” blitz was all the more surprising given recent box office news. After grossing just $4.9 million at nearly 1,500 theaters Friday through Sunday, “Munich” dropped out of the weekend top 10.

U co-prez of marketing Eddie Egan told me the film’s box office performance had no bearing on Monday’s newspaper campaign, which was timed to capitalize on the MLK holiday, a time when Oscar ballots are still in the mail. “We saw this weekend as a long weekend in which people spend a lot of time at home with the paper,” he said. “We wanted to draw attention to the artistic merits of our films in contention.”

Asked whether the studio planned to cut back on print ads, Egan remained noncommittal. “We may or may not,” he said. “Today just seemed like a good day to buy newspapers.”

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